How Not to Say Yes

One of the first lessons in geometry I learnt in school was Pythagoras' Theorem, which mesmerized me with its simple yet compelling logic. It was Pythagoras who also taught me one of my first lessons as a manager. I still remember the profound wisdom of his statement: "The oldest, shortest words — "yes" and "no" — are those which require the most thought."

Many of us have agonized over the right way to say "no." As leaders, we learn to be careful about making negative statements, so we don't dampen people's initiative, demoralize them, or undermine the chances of getting something done.

For the most part, though, we forget that there are ways of saying "yes" that can have the same devastating results. Three examples:

"Yes, I know..." When kids say that, it makes them feel all grown up. However, when managers utter those words, they convey the message: "I don't need your opinion, I know everything." That's a sure-fire way of cutting yourself off from your colleagues' wisdom.

In contrast, I often say: "No, I don't know." You'd be surprised at the value of that phrase in creating a participatory organizational culture.

"Well, yes  — and no..." That phrase appears to reflect balance, but it usually comes across as muddled. A leader needs to appear positive and assertive. In a recent post, leadership development consultant Scott Edinger voted for assertiveness. "Not because being assertive is such a wonderful trait in and of itself. Rather, because of its power to magnify so many other leadership strengths."

I couldn't agree more; assertiveness — quite distinct from being aggressive —  is the antidote to the pendulum style of 'Yes and No' managers.

"Yes, but..."In my dictionary, "Yes but" means that things aren't right but someone has come up with several excuses for why that is the case.

In my early days as HCL's CEO, whenever I proposed big changes, I found several "Yes, but..." managers who constantly objected to new ideas and had laundry lists of reasons about why they wouldn't work. Such people discourage innovation, aren't willing to take risks to change the status quo, and don't trust solutions that their colleagues propose.

These three phrases don't encompass all that ails the art of saying "yes," but they lie at the heart of the indecisiveness that plagues leadership today. Would you agree?

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